Five takeaways from acting AG's fiery House hearing
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was grilled by House Judiciary Committee lawmakers for close to six hours Friday in an explosive hearing dominated by partisan clashes.
During the hearing, Whitaker fielded a slew of questions on special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s investigation, which he repeatedly declined to answer directly, infuriating House Democrats in their first crack at a top Trump administration official since recapturing the chamber in last year’s midterm elections.
The conclusion of the tense and highly dramatic hearing left Democrats unsatisfied and pledging that they will request a return appearance from Whitaker — even as his days as the top law enforcement official are numbered with the impending confirmation of William Barr.
Here are five takeaways from Whitaker’s contentious appearance before the committee Friday.
Whitaker denies interfering in Mueller probe — but reveals little else
Mueller’s investigation dominated much of the questioning, forcing Whitaker to repeatedly deny that he has “interfered” with the ongoing probe into Russia's election inference and potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
Whitaker, who said he has not yet received Mueller’s final report, denied talking to Trump or other senior White House officials about the Mueller probe. He said he had not made any “promises” to Trump with respect to the special counsel or other investigations and that the president had not asked him to make any commitments.
"We have followed the special counsel's regulations to a T. There has been no event, no decision that has required me to take any action,” Whitaker said. “And I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel's investigation.”
Whitaker, however, declined to comment on most questions related to the probe, citing Department of Justice (DOJ) rules that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on ongoing investigations. He would not discuss the scope of the investigation or explain the basis for his public pronouncement late last month that he believed it “close to being completed.”
Whitaker also declined to discuss multiple other matters, including the investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan that ensnared Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen.
And when lawmakers tried to press Whitaker to break with Trump on the Mueller investigation, he wouldn’t take the bait.
“Would you say the special counsel’s investigation is a witch hunt? Are you overseeing a witch hunt?” asked Rep. Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenOmar leads lawmakers in calling for US envoy to combat Islamophobia Trump says being impeached twice didn't change him: 'I became worse' Five big questions about the Jan. 6 select committee MORE (D-Tenn.).
“The special counsel’s investigation is an ongoing investigation, so I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment,” Whitaker replied.
Hearing was high political theater
The acting attorney general set the contentious tone early when he told Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) — the committee's chairman — that he had gone over his allotted five minutes of time for questioning.
It was a stunning breach of protocol that drew gasps and guffaws from the committee hearing room — and has since been shown repeatedly on cable news.
"Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up," Whitaker said to the surprise of the room.
It set the stage for moments of tension throughout the hearing, both between Whitaker and Democrats and among the lawmakers on the panel.
The hearing devolved into partisan bickering before the questioning could even begin, with committee ranking member Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor MORE (R-Ga.) declaring it was nothing more than “political theater.”
“This is nothing more than a character assassination,” Collins said, labeling the event “pointless.”
The Georgia Republican ensured that sparks flew throughout the hearing, raising a point of order each time a Democrat questioned Whitaker about work he did prior to his joining the Justice Department.
And Collins at one point also faced off with Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellCalifornia Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's riot lawsuit Tech executives increased political donations amid lobbying push MORE (D-Calif.), who is rumored to be considering running for president in 2020, for asking questions about Whitaker’s work outside of the department.
“Mr. Collins, if you want to sit down there with his lawyers, you can go sit down there,” Swalwell quipped. “But you’re not his lawyer.”
“Neither are you, Mr. Swalwell, and if you asked questions that are actually part of this instead of running for president we could get this done,” Collins hit back.
Democratic Reps. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesMcCarthy jokes it'll be hard not to 'hit' Pelosi with gavel if he is Speaker Jeffries: 'Sick and cynical' for GOP to blame Pelosi for Jan. 6 Democrat unveils bill to allow only House members to serve as Speaker MORE (N.Y.) and Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Angst grips America's most liberal city Congress must lower the Medicare Age to save the lives of older Americans MORE (Wash.) also made headlines with their impassioned inquiries: Jeffries asked Whitaker, “How the heck did you become the head of the Department of Justice?”
And Jayapal got emotional when discussing the administration’s family separation policy at the southern border.
“Do you know what kind of damage has been done to children and families across this country? Children who will never get to see their parents again?” the progressive lawmaker asked. “Do you understand the magnitude of that?”
The political clashes come at a time when lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are seeking to flex their muscles about how they will handle oversight of Trump and his administration. Democrats sought to demonstrate that they will aggressively press aides for answers, while Republicans showed that they will fiercely defend against their efforts.
Dems aren’t done with Whitaker
Whitaker has emerged as a top target for House Democrats. And they signaled Friday they’re far from done with him.
Nadler announced, after concluding his own line of questioning early on in the hearing, that Whitaker will be questioned by the committee again in the near future during a closed-door, transcribed session.
The Democratic chairman closed the hearing by expressing disappointment in Whitaker’s testimony, labeling it “inconsistent at best,” and saying the committee expected answers in writing to several questions.
“He obviously didn’t answer a lot of questions. He will. And I think the really important thing here ... is this administration is used to evading any questions they want to evade,” Nadler said shortly after the hearing concluded.
“Our questions will be answered, we will issue a subpoena if necessary,” he added.
This means that Whitaker could continue to face congressional scrutiny after leaving the top law enforcement job. He himself acknowledged several times during the hearing that he won’t be in the role for long: Barr, President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE’s pick to lead the Justice Department, was voted out of committee this week and is expected to be confirmed by the Senate in the near future.
But it’s possible that Whitaker could return to the administration in another role. Whitaker revealed during the hearing that he had been interviewed by the White House for another job before he landed the position as former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE’s chief of staff.
He told lawmakers toward the end of the hearing that he had interviewed for former White House lawyer Ty Cobb’s job as well.
Whitaker also said that after he leaves the DOJ, he will still cooperate with department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, calling him a “fine career employee.”
Trump officials are in for rough hearings with Dems
Friday’s hearing was the first major opportunity for House Democrats to exercise their newfound majority powers and publicly grill a top Trump administration official.
Nadler signaled early on that lawmakers would not hesitate to use their oversight tools — including the power of subpoena — to compel Whitaker to answer questions that he decides against answering in public.
"Your failure to respond fully to our questions here today in no way limits the ability of this committee to get the answers in the long run — even if you are a private citizen when we finally learn the truth,” Nadler said in his opening remarks.
"And although I am willing to work with the department to obtain this information, I will not allow that process to drag out for weeks and months,” Nadler said. “The time for this administration to postpone accountability is over.”
Others were unafraid to chastise Whitaker when they interpreted him as not taking questions seriously or adhering to established practice.
When Whitaker made a quip about questioning time being restored during an exchange with Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeePhotos of the Week: Olympic sabre semi-finals, COVID-19 vigil and a loris House ethics panel decides against probe after Hank Johnson civil disobedience Jackson Lee is third CBC member in three weeks to be arrested protesting for voting rights MORE (D-Texas), the congresswoman hit back — and hard.
“Mr. Attorney General, we are not joking here,” Jackson Lee said. “And your humor is not acceptable.”
The conditions could spell trouble for Trump administration officials whom Democrats are eager to bring into the hot seat now that they hold the majority in Congress.
Various House committees, including the Financial Services, Intelligence and Oversight and Reform panels, are opening far-reaching investigations into Trump and his administration that will cover everything from his finances to his policies as president.
Bruce Ohr and Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneCould Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? Has Trump beaten the system? Trump is on the ballot whether his name is there or not MORE make cameos
Republicans didn’t let Whitaker’s place in the Trump administration stop them from pressing him over issues they view as concerning, including their fears of bias impacting DOJ probes.
Collins questioned Whitaker on whether the Justice Department still employed Bruce Ohr, a staffer who has faced scrutiny from GOP lawmakers because of his ties to the controversial so-called Steele dossier.
Whitaker confirmed that Ohr continues to work for the agency but did not provide specifics on his current role.
He said that the Carter Page surveillance application, which made reference to the Steele dossier, is currently being looked at by the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General and U.S. Attorney James Huber, who is examining conservative allegations of surveillance abuse at the FBI and the Justice Department.
Conservatives have set their sights on Ohr in recent months over his communications with the opposition research firm Fusion GPS and former British spy Christopher Steele, which produced the controversial dossier making unverified allegations about the Trump campaign's ties to Moscow.
And longtime GOP operative and Trump ally Roger Stone, who was arrested last month on charges stemming from the Mueller probe, also came up in questioning, largely over CNN’s coverage of the arrest.
Conservatives, including Stone, have questioned why the outlet was present during his early morning arrest, floating questions about whether CNN was tipped off to the arrest. The network has denied getting a tip, saying reporters believed Stone might be arrested due to activity from the special counsel’s office the day before.
Whitaker told lawmakers at the hearing "it was deeply concerning to me as to how CNN found out about” the arrest, giving Stone’s unfounded claim a boost from the administration.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) also pushed Whitaker over whether or not he had conversations with Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinWashington still needs more transparency House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week MORE over a bombshell New York Times report that Rosenstein suggested invoking the 25th Amendment against Trump.
Whitaker told the lawmaker that he wasn’t going to share the details of his talks with Rosenstein, which Biggs protested, claiming that sharing the information was necessary for the American people to know about, as to clear any allegations of bias from impacting the Mueller investigation.
Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanKinzinger supports Jan. 6 panel subpoenas for Republicans, including McCarthy Jordan acknowledges talking to Trump on Jan. 6 AP Fact Check rates GOP claim Pelosi blocked National Guard on Jan. 6 'false' MORE (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, also put Whitaker on the spot by pressing him for specifics about a memo on the scope of Mueller's investigation.
Jordan wanted to determine whether the memo specifically names U.S. citizens as being potentially under investigation.
The acting attorney general, however, dodged answering the questions, stating that the probe is "ongoing."
"I would just refer the congressman to the general practices of the Department of Justice that we investigate crimes and not individuals," he said in response.